Pitcher WAR and IP Spikes of the Early '70s
He nailed the question, by the way.
The germ of it began on Twitter, too. A friend posted the 1971 Time magazine cover of Vida Blue, I wrote “Helluva year,” then went to Baseball Reference to look up his career stats. That season, which he began as a 21-year-old, he pitched 312 innings, struck out 301, and posted a 24-8 record with a 1.82 ERA. He was voted both MVP and Cy Young. Wow. I noticed his ERA led the league but not his wins (br.com bolds league-leading stats), so I clicked on the Cy Young voting to see who had more wins. Mickey Lolich, it turns out, who went 25-14 with a 2.92 ERA.
But neither guy led the league in pitcher's WAR. Lolich's was 8.7, which is fantastic. Blue's was 9.0, ditto. But the league leader had an 11.7 WAR.
That sent me scurrying to BR's best single-season WAR performances by a pitcher. It's a list clogged with 19th century players. The first 20th century player on the list is Walter Johnson with a 14.6 WAR in 1913 (That's good for 9th all-time). The second is Walter Johnson, with a 13.5 WAR in 1912 (18th). That's followed by Cy Young (1901, 12.06, tied for 23rd), and Dwight Gooden's phenomenal 1985 season (12.02, 25th).
And I got curious: How many of the top 100 single-season WAR pitcher performances were after the deadball era (1920 on)?
Answer: Just 27. Several guys make the list twice.
So that became the trivia question I sent to Joey Poz and whoever else wanted to answer it:
Trivia for @JPosnanski:— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) November 18, 2017
The single-season @baseball_ref pitcher WAR is dominated by 19th c players but seven post-deadball pitchers manage to land in the top 100 list twice. Name them. Hint: Neither is Pedro or Randy.
The point, I added, is that six of the seven aren't surprises. One is. (The guy with the 11.7 WAR in 1971.) Naming the one is the fun part.
The six no-brainers are Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens.
The other guy? Wilbur Wood.
If you'd ask me the day before to give my thoughts on Wilbur Wood, I would've said he was a chubby, mediocre pitcher with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s who once lost 20 games in a season (1975, when he went 16-20), and whose baseball card I got too much and tended to trade quickly. Yet according to WAR, he had two of the greatest pitching seasons in modern times in the early '70s.
It wasn't just him. There was something about those years, too. If you break down the post-deadball top 100 WAR pitching seasons by decade, you get this:
- 1920s: 4 (and none after 1924)
- 1930s: 2 (both by Lefty Grove)
- 1940s: 1 (Hal Newhouser in the last war year, 1945)
- 1950s: 0
- 1960s: 6
- 1970s: 7
- 1980s: 2
- 1990s: 2 (both Roger Clemens)
- 2000s: 3 (Pedro, Randy, Zack)
- 2010s: 0 (so far)
It's startling. The '60s are known as the pitching decade, since the mound was raised post-61*. That ended after the Year of the Pitcher ('68), and hitting supposedly returned. Yet the '70s had more great pitcher years by WAR? And they were all within the same small window: 1971-73? 1971 alone had as many top pitching WAR performances (3) as there were in the 35+ years between 1925 and 1962, and none of them was Vida Blue. It went Wood, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver. The next year was Steve Carlton's great year, and he was joined by Gaylord Perry and Wilbur Wood. '73 was just Seaver.
Innings Pitched leaders went up during those years, too. In the late '50s, at the tail end of the 154-game schedule, no one threw more than 300 innings. Then we got the 162-game schedule and league leaders were again above 300, with the high for the decade being Denny McClain with 336 in 1968. But in 1971, Mickey Lolich pitched 376 innings—the most since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917. And in '72? Wilbur Wood topped him, pitching 376.2 innings. This despite a player's strike at the start of the season that caused most teams to miss 6-8 games. (The White Sox missed 8, playing a 154-game schedule.)
And it wasn't just him. The top three pitchers for IP that year all threw more innings than any pitcher in the 1960s: Wood with 376.2, Steve Carlton with 346.1, Gaylord Perry with 342.2. Again, this was a strike-shortened year. And it was temporary. After '73 no one would ever throw as many innings as even the No. 3 guy, Perry, in '72. And after Steve Carlton threw 304 in 1980, no one would ever throw 300+ again.
What accounts for that IP spike in the early '70s? Wood was helped by being a knuckleballer (as was Phil Niekro later in the decade), but that doesn't explain Lolich, Carlton or Perry. I assume all those innings pitched help with the WAR spike, too. I just wonder if it helps too much.
Either way, I want my Wilbur Wood cards back.